This week… we’re sharing difficult conversations around a complicated subject…
Lorna Washington (LW): I went through different stages of being a gun owner.
Willie Sparrow: I don’t want any guns in church. I don’t want any guns in schools.
Sean Smith (SS): I remember taking the gun out. My sister was off to the side of the room. I distinctly remember her saying, “You should put it back…”
Dezmond Floyd (DF): I decided to stand in front of the class because I want to take the bullet and save my friends.
Amy Over (AO): I started hearing popping sounds and there were lots of screams…
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR… I’m your host Jasmyn Morris. And on this episode… stories about guns.
First… we’ll hear from two friends who have very different thoughts on the matter. Willie Sparrow and Lorna Washington first met at their local church in Fort Meyers, Florida… more than a decade ago…
Lorna Washington (LW): When was the first time you were made aware of guns?
Willie Sparrow (WS): My dad had a gun to protect the house. They weren’t locked up in a safe–thanks dad. But, um, when I graduated from high school, my uncle took us out into the woods and that was the only time I’ve ever shot a gun.
LW: I come from a military family.
LW: …and so during our growing up, I can remember my dad always toted a weapon
wherever we went and then he also went hunting. So, I guess, my dad’s position is what shaped us, because it trickled down to his children.
When we transitioned to Miami, I actually witnessed people using guns to commit crimes. I was a gun owner to protect myself and my family…
LW: …because of the environment of crime and violence in the city.
WS: Arming yourself for protection, that’s fine. I just think about the stats. Accidental shootings don’t happen in homes that don’t have guns. Kids don’t shoot themselves when there’s no gun in the home.
LW: I went through different stages of being a gun owner. So when my kids was very young, I owned weapons. But, as my kids got older, I was afraid of an accident.
LW: You know, kids are naturally inquisitive.
LW: Plus I was the home that everybody hung out at. So even if my kids were educated about gun safety…
WS: Their friends could go…
WS: …through the drawers and get it out themselves.
LW: Thank you. So I do understand your position on how you view that and I I made the decision for several years not to own a weapon in the house.
We’ll hear more from this conversation later… but first… a story from our archive told by a family all too familiar with what Lorna and Willie were just discussing…
Sean Smith grew up in the 80’s in Florida… a couple hours from the church where Willie and Lorna met.
When Sean was 10… he and his 8-year-old sister rode their bikes home from school one day… while their parents were still at work.
Alone in their house… they went searching for a video game that their parents had hidden from them… But instead of finding the game… Sean found a .38-caliber revolver in his father’s dresser drawer.
30 years after that day… we’ll hear from Sean and his mom, Lee. But first… you should know… this story might be upsetting to some listeners…
Sean Smith (SS): I remember taking the gun out. My sister was off to the side of the room. I distinctly remember her saying, “You should put it back,” and she ran across just as my finger hit the trigger. It went off and, in a flash, she was down. My ears were ringing and I remember picking her up and sitting her in my lap. I had my hand over the wound and I grabbed the phone and I was calling 911, trying to talk to the operator.
<911 Phone Call>
Young Sean: I didn’t know my dad’s gun was loaded and I shot her.
SS: I remember trying to do CPR on her but there was no response to it.
<911 Phone Call>
Young Sean: …she’s dead.
911 operator: She’s dead?
Young Sean: Yes. Please get my mom and dad. Oh my God…
SS: Once the cop got there I remember him bringing me into the living room and sitting me down and, you know, I was just trying to wrap my 10-year-old mind around what had happened. That, you know, in an instant my sister wasn’t there anymore.
What do you remember about that day that Erin died?
Lee Smith (LS): It was just a blur to be honest with you. You know, when something happens, like when a crime happens, you’re mad at this person but we had nobody to get mad at, because how can you get mad at a 10-year-old little boy?
Do you remember any conversations you had with your dad at that time?
SS: I just remember him saying, “It’s not your fault.” But I couldn’t help but blame myself at that point. You know, I didn’t even think of where he might have felt some guilt as well. Any little mention or memory of Erin would break me down and, you know, I’d be a crying mess.
LS: Even though you fought like brothers and sisters, whenever there was a picture opportunity, you always put your arm around her like you were protecting her.
SS: Yeah. We were only a year apart and we definitely had that sibling love.
LS: You know, I had the hardest time when people asked me how many children I have. They go, “Oh, what’s their ages?” And I say, “41, 36 and eternally 8.”
SS: How did you see this change me?
LS: When you were younger, it seemed to me that you just pushed it aside, but as you got older it seemed to come more to the surface.
SS: Yeah. I dropped out of high school, got introduced to drugs and, um, cocaine was definitely a big factor in my drug use. But then my son, Dylan, was born and I didn’t want to go back to that life anymore. So my son pretty much saved my life.
If you could speak to Erin now, what would you want her to know?
LS: I’d love to be able to tell her that you were okay, but I’m worried that you’re not. I’m worried that this is going to haunt you forever.
SS: I would want to tell her I’m sorry. I regret every single thing that happened that day. And I wish one day that I’ll be good and it’d be nice to finally say that and, you know, and mean it.
LS: —and mean it. (laughs)
Sean Smith with his mother, Lee, at StoryCorps in Fort Lauderdale, Florida… remembering their sister and daughter, Erin Smith, who died on June 5, 1989.
In Florida… that same week … four other kids were killed in similar situations. As a result, the state became the first to pass legislation which made it a crime for a gun to be left around where a kid could find it. Now… more than a dozen states have similar laws on the books.
We’ll be right back.
We’re going to now hear from Willie Sparrow and Lorna Washington again… to listen in on more of their conversation…
WS: Have you ever had to fire your gun at anybody, or…?
LW: Yes, I did. You know, I was dating a young man at a time and I decided to break it up. He didn’t take it well. One evening coming home, he comes down the street and he blocks me off. And he gets out the car, he points what seems to be a weapon at me. All I could think about, this guy’s gonna kill me, so I have to get him before he got me. And I took my weapon and I fired and he takes off.
WS: Wow. This deals with a woman trying to protect herself and having that great equalizer.
LW: Sometimes in society men think that we’re the weaker vessel and they can take advantage of us.
WS: How do you not cross the line and turn into Rambo and have 25 weapons and thousands of bullets and all this other stuff?
LW: Well, as an American citizen, I do want to have the right to bear arms, the right to decide what type of arms I carry and how I carry it. I do agree on the fact that we don’t need automatic, and semi automatic weapons, because why would you have to go on and unload 50 bullets in a school?
LW: And if you ask the kids–because I’m an educator, you’re an educator–our kids today said the greatest fear is that they’re not going to make it back home because someone will come in their school and commit a mass shooting.
Again… we’re going to pause here and come back to Lorna and Willie later… so we can hear from a survivor of one of the worst school shootings in US history…
Amy Over (AO): I used to not tell people that I was a Columbine survivor. I wasn’t able to really talk about it.
Amy Over was a student at Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999… the day two teens opened fire… killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others.
Amy came to StoryCorps two decades later… with her 13-year-old daughter Brianna… to remember that time.
AO: It was a Tuesday, right after my senior prom. I went to my science class and then after science was lunch, so I went down into the cafeteria area. I remember talking with my friends, and then all of a sudden I started hearing popping sounds and there were lots of screams.
So I went and I hid under the table with one of my peers. There was pure silence and then gunfire. I was scared out of my mind and I remember not being able to breathe. I didn’t think I was going to make it out of there alive.
But I decided to run and I remember, as I was running out, we were being shot at. And I shielded myself with my peers, just trying to be in the crowd so I wouldn’t be shot. And I remember having such guilt afterwards.
AO: At the time, I didn’t even know that there were school shootings of this magnitude; whereas now it happens quite frequently and you know that.
So as a kid in this day and age, what’s it like for you to go through a lockout drill?
BO: It’s definitely scary.
AO: Do they tell you when you’re going to have a drill?
BO: No. But over the loudspeaker, they’ll inform us and, it’s just…
AO: What do your teachers do?
BO: They lead us into the most safe place in the room and we hide.
AO: You literally hide?
BO: We shut the lights off. We lock the door.
AO: Wow, that just makes me sad that you have had to grow up a little bit faster. And a lot of the reason why you have to go through that is Columbine set the precedents for why we have lockout and lockdown drills.
Do you feel like it’s different for you?
BO: It is. Being the daughter of a Columbine survivor, I have a different sense of reality than most kids. They take the drills seriously but I don’t think they understand if it were to happen, what their situation would be.
AO: It’s kind of like you put yourself in my shoes. And I keep telling myself, lightning can’t strike twice but this is something that I worry that you and your brother might have to face someday.
AO: I know I can’t protect you from everything but I want to keep you in this little bubble and protect you. And it just breaks my heart.
BO: We just got to live our lives…
BO: …even through hard times, because you never really know what’s going to happen.
That’s Brianna Over in 2019… talking with her mom, Amy, for StoryCorps in Parker, Colorado.
The difficult conversation about guns in schools and lockdown drills… has become something many parents are dealing with today.
Parents like Tanai Benard … who spoke with her 10-year-old son Dezmond Floyd back in 2018… at StoryCorps in Houston, Texas.
At the time… Dezmond was attending 5th grade at his local public school…
Dezmond Floyd (DF): What emergency drills did you have as you were growing up in school?
Tanai Benard (TB): Fire drills and tornado drills and that was it. So can you tell me exactly what happens in active shooter drills?
DF: The teacher is supposed to lock the door, turn the lights off, and push this big desk behind the door. And the first time I did an active shooter drill I saw her having a hard time with it, so I decided to come help her because if she doesn’t get the desk on the door in time, the intruder can open it.
TB: So what do you do next after you push the table?
DF: The class is supposed to stand on the back wall but I decided to stand in front of the class to take the bullet and save my friends.
TB: So does your teacher ask you to stand in front of the class?
DF: No. My life matters but, it’s kind of like, there’s one person that can come home to the family or there can be 22 people that come home to a family.
TB: Do you know why it’s hard for me to accept that?
DF: Because I’m such a young age, I shouldn’t really be giving my life up, like, you shouldn’t have to worry about that.
TB: Right. If there’s any a-time that I want you to be selfish, it’s then. I need you to come home.
So would you still stand in front of your friends even with me telling you not to?
DF: Yes. I get that you would want me to come home but it’s really not a choice that you can make, it’s a choice that I have to make.
TB: I see now that there’s nothing I could say that would change your mind. I just hope that it never comes to that.
DF: Talking about this makes me feel sad but you raised a good person.
TB: And this is why I can’t have the conversation with you. You keep saying things like that and I’m speechless. You’re 10 and you’re that 10-year-old who doesn’t clean their room and there is no handbook for this. This is why the conversation always ends between you and I in dead silence because I’m a mother and I don’t know what to say.
That’s Tanai Benard with her son, Dezmond Floyd, for StoryCorps.
And it isn’t just schools… In recent years… there have been mass shootings in other public places too… which brings us back to Lorna Washington and Willie Sparrow…
…who realized they had different views on guns… after white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Willie and Lorna’s church is over 500 miles away… but it’s also predominantly African American.
WS: After the shooting in Charleston it made me more aware of my environment. This one guy that I never saw in my church before was walking around, and in my mind was, if he comes back around with a gun, I’m going to make sure I jump him. Those thoughts flow through my mind since then.
And I try to focus on God. You know, the bible says we need to watch and pray, but I’m doing a lot more watching while I’m praying at church, so that’s an after-effect for me.
LW: You know, I’m a concealed weapons owner. After the Charleston shooting I decided I ain’t going to church unarmed anymore. And not only churches, but concerts; wherever I go where there’s a gathering of people now, I am so conscious there might be a gunman or someone may come in and attack.
WS: I don’t want any guns in church. I don’t want any guns in schools.
WS: Because even as a concealed carrier, that doesn’t give you the patience and the wisdom on how to react to every situation.
LW: I look at it as maybe I can prevent him from killing 15, 20 people and he only killed a few?
WS: In the heat of the moment, what if you miss and kill some other people? Do you think about that? What if I miss? And then he ends up shooting back and killed other people that wouldn’t have been targets.
LW: That is a scenario to think about. You always have a view that I don’t see, and I’m quite sure others don’t see. But you also evoke emotions to want to do something about this and you bring things to light, and I thank you for us having this dialogue together.
WS: Lorna, thank you so much for talking and engaging with me and I hope we can continue this conversation.
LW: You know it’s something we quote all the time in church: “My people perish for the lack of knowledge.” So hopefully, you know, this time we spent together, this will bring us forward.
WS: Forward, yes.
That’s Wille Sparrow talking with his friend from church… Lorna Washington for StoryCorps in Fort Myers, Florida.
They recorded their interview as part of StoryCorps’ One Small Step initiative — which you heard about in last week’s episode. It’s an effort to bring together Americans with different political views… to get to know one another as human beings. To sign up… visit takeonesmallstep.org.
You can also find information on the music you just heard… and see original illustrations for this season of the podcast on our website, StoryCorps.org.
This episode was produced by Jud Esty-Kendall… edited by me… Jasmyn Morris. With scripting help from Sylvie Lubow. Our production assistant is Eleanor Vassili. Jarrett Floyd is our technical director. Fact-checking by Natsumi Ajisaka. And special thanks to StoryCorps producers Andrés Caballero, Mia Warren and Kelly Moffit… as well as facilitators Kevin Oliver, Brenda Norbeck-Ford, Jhaleh Akhavan, Gautam Srikishan and Alletta Cooper.
Next week in our last episode of the season… you’ll hear from one of the only known survivors of a lynching… and how finding the love of his life helped him through.
WR: Now I’m 71 but I still wake up screaming and reliving things that happened to me.
PR: When I look back over your life and see how much was taken away from you, it made me have a special place in my heart for you.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening.